February 7, 2014
The Japanese Oskar Schindler
Almost 70 years after the end of World War II, Japanese people are still the victims of a lot of anger about what went on during the war, particularly from a Chinese and Korean point of view. Without wanting to get into endless recriminations, there were some highly questionable things done by the Empire of Japan, even in the context of a war full of highly questionable things. And, it can’t be denied, they fought on the side of the Nazis.
But Chiune Sugihara is proof, if it were needed, that pointing at ‘the Japanese’ and generically saying ‘you did this’ is misguided, just as it is in any case of judging individuals for a nation’s mistakes. Sugihara was the Oskar Schindler of Japan in World War II. Like Schindler and his famous list, Sugihara saw what Nazi Germany was doing to Jewish people and other certain groups and used his administrative power to save as many of them as possible. It is estimated he saved around 10,000.
Sugihara was Vice-Consul for the Empire of Japan in Lithuania early in the war, when thousands of Jewish refugees were looking to move closer to safety in Japan, while being wary of Nazi invasion of Lithuania, a then Soviet-occupied territory. Once Germany did invade and take Lithuania, it is estimated that almost 200,000 Jews were then murdered as part of the Holocaust. Thousands, though, had already escaped thanks to Chiune Sugihara.
Sugihara directly contradicted the orders he had received from his seniors in the famously strict and bureaucratic government of the Empire of Japan. Among many other tight regulations, anyone receiving a transit visa for Japan must have onward travel plans and visas and must have the means to support themselves. Most had none of this, but Sugihara worked tirelessly to issue as many visas as possible. He would produce in one day the amount usually issued in a month. Those he helped could then travel across Russia by train, thanks to Sugihara persuading Soviet authorities to allow it, to Vladivostok on the east side of Russia, where they could take a boat to Kobe in Japan.
So desperate was he to help people, that between July 31 and August 28, 1940, Sugihara and his wife stayed up all night writing visas. He was issuing visas from the open window of his train as it prepared to leave Lithuania after the Japanese consulate closed, and finally gave the visa stamp to a refugee as he pulled away so that they could try to make their own.
In 1985, a year before he died in Tokyo, Israel awarded Sugihara with the title “Righteous Among the Nations” – granted to non-Jews who risked everything to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Sugihara would have been fully aware that his actions risked not only his own life but also those of his family. As a result of his bravery, an estimated 100,000 descendants of those Jewish refugees are alive today.